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How Politics Can Affect Dairy Products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with protecting and promoting American agriculture, which includes the meat and dairy industries. At the same time, the USDA also has the primary responsibility for revising and issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) every five years. The DGA are the cornerstone of all federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program. The DGA are supposed to describe an optimal diet for keeping Americans healthy.

This conflict of interest has for many years made it difficult, if not impossible, for the USDA to reconcile the interests of the public’s health with the interests of American agribusiness — the large, corporate factory farms. This built-in conflict has complicated the production of dietary recommendations and resulted in guidelines that were weak and unclear.

Fortunately, the most recent set of DGA is much improved over past years. In addition to acknowledging that some people may prefer to eat a vegetarian diet, mention also is made of alternatives to cow’s milk for those who prefer to live dairy-free.

Still, the dairy industry influence remains evident in American food policy today and is responsible for keeping dairy products in the diets of many people. Fluid cow’s milk, for example, is required to be served with every federally reimbursable meal in the National School Lunch Program. A doctor’s note with a medical excuse is required for children to receive a nondairy alternative to cow’s milk at lunchtime. And federal subsidies, price supports, and other economic incentives keep dairy products profitable to produce and sell.

The problem is that the goal of protecting the meat and dairy industries is increasingly at odds with what science considers an optimal diet for humans. Most scientific evidence considers an optimal diet to be one that’s low in animal products and high in plant matter.

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